The power and influence of hosting the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 2023 could inspire the game’s next try-scoring record breaker and trendsetter to again be South African.
Bryan Habana was just 13 years-old in 1995 when South Africa hosted Rugby’s World Cup and the late Nelson Mandela forever transformed the game’s landscape in how he embraced the tournament and the Springboks in his capacity as the country’s president.
‘I saw Nelson Mandela walk out in that Springboks jersey which could never have happened in apartheid time. But there I sat as a 13-year-old youngster who had never picked up a rugby ball in terms of a team context, but it inspired me to hopefully one day inspire that next generation and to bring a nation together,’ recalled Habana.
Fast forward from 1995 to 2007 and it was the late Madiba embracing Habana, South Africa’s World Cup-winning star and World Rugby Player of the Tournament and Player of the Year.
Habana, like all the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks, dedicated the trophy to the man they believed owned the game with his incredible and powerful introduction in 1995.
Players, individually and when talking on behalf of the squad, have consistently spoken of the inspiration of Nelson Mandela and the desire within the squad to win the World Cup for Madiba.
Morne du Plessis, former Springbok captain and the 1995 Springbok manager, impressed on the class of 2007 that it was time for a new story in Springbok rugby. He said the class of 95 needed another group to go one step further and win the World Cup away from home.
Jake White, coach of the 2007 World Cup Boks, spoke of the gratitude the players felt to Mandela for what he had come to represent to the Springboks.
‘The great man visited us when he was in Paris. He wasn’t at his best health but he was insistent on seeing his boys at the World Cup,’ says White.
‘He told them they were good enough to win the competition and that he was looking forward to them visiting him back in South Africa with the trophy. It was one of the great days in all of our lives to make that visit to him with the trophy.’
Habana, in several interviews, detailed the power of a Rugby World Cup in one’s own country. He singled out the impact of Jonah Lomu in 1995. Habana was enthralled, as was probably every young kid who got to see Lomu at his destructive best.’
‘He was just something else,’ says Habana, reinforcing the experience (as a youngster) of witnessing the best players in one’s own country.
Habana, like the core of the 2007 World Cup winning squad, was given a tangible in aspiration and inspiration because of the 1995 tournament in South Africa.
The Springboks, post 1995, were among an elite few to win the tournament and only the Springboks and All Blacks have won the tournament at home and away.
Habana’s record-equaling 15 World Cup tries were integral to the 2007 gold medal and the 2015 bronze medal, but had there been no World Cup in South Africa in 1995 it may be that the world would never have got to experience Habana’s try-scoring heroics.
Habana’s life career choice may have been anything but rugby.
South Africa 1995 gave a young kid the appetite to want to play rugby, be a Springbok and win the World Cup – a kid who up until then had never given it a thought to play rugby for his country.
It’s why Habana knows the significance of having the World Cup in South Africa in 2023 because there may just be another unsuspecting 13 year-old seduced by the greatest game on earth, who a decade later is among the greatest try scorers to ever play the game.